UN guidelines for prisoners mandate that “every prisoner who is not employed in outdoor work shall have at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily if weather permits,” and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled several times that deprivation of outdoor exercise is a violation of the Eighth Amendment (the one that prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment”). Yet according to The Guardian, a 2016 study discovered that 75% of UK children get less outdoor time than the UN mandates for prison inmates. Twenty percent of those kids, in fact, don’t get outside at all on a regular day.
Even worse, a 2012 study found that out of 8,950 children, only half went outside “to walk or play once a day with a parent,” according to CBS News — and girls were more likely to sit inside than boys. Another 2016 survey of 12,000 parents in 10 countries found some more disturbing news. Half of those kids get only an hour of exercise time outside per day, and 33% get less than 30 minutes, according to Fatherly. The study was commissioned by the soap company Percil as part of their “Dirt is Good” campaign.
We’ve come to the point where the issue has a name: Nature Deficit Disorder, coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods — in which he details a kid telling him that he preferred being inside to outside because “that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”
The benefits of spending time outside — not just playing organized sports, but time in nature — are well-known and widespread. According to The Child Mind Institute, that playing outdoors builds confidence. As Early Childhood News says, in outdoor play, children “learn about the world in their own way. They feel safe and in control, which promotes autonomy, decision-making, and organizational skills.” It also promotes creativity and imagination — important skills to cultivate in the new economy. While outside, children can “think independently and openly,” says Timbernook founder Angela Hanscom.
Getting outside is also good for kids on a physical level. The National Wildlife Federation points out that it helps build “active, healthy bodies,” which is an achievable goal for children of any size. Outdoor play also raises Vitamin D levels, which protects kids from “future bone problems, heart disease, diabetes, and other health issues.” It also improves nearsightedness and improves distance vision. One philosopher claimed, in a study in Archives and Pediatric Medicine quoted by TIME, that because girls are less likely to go out to play, they are less likely to be exposed to “microorganisms in the outdoor environment,” and that this may explain the higher rates of autoimmune disorders among women.
This type of play, according to Early Childhood News, is how children can experience “motor skills like running, leaping, and jumping …And children can perform other such manipulative skills as pushing a swing, pulling a wagon, and lifting and carrying movable objects.”
Hanscom goes even further: being outside challenges children’s vestibular, or balance, system, “and their coordination, by moving in all directions while climbing trees, scaling rock walls, rolling down grassy hills, and running from one place to the next. They develop strength and endurance by hiking up hills, carrying heavy rocks, bricks, and sticks.”
According to The Guardian, being outside is so important that musician and Game of Thrones actor Raleigh Rich has teamed up with the National Trust to encourage kids to, among other things, play with sticks. He said, “For some people, a stick is just a stick. However, I want to encourage young people to see that actually the possibilities are endless. It can be a pen, a sword, a witch’s broom, a dragon’s bone … anything. That’s what childhood should be about: getting outdoors and going on adventures, using your imagination to customise the world you see and feeding that appetite for fresh air and fun.”
So what do we do about the fact that our kids aren’t getting enough time outside, even less than mandated for prison inmates, in fact?
Well, we push for recess — and where there’s already recess, we advocate for longer recess time. According to Scholastic, kids who have recess are less fidgety, have better attention and memory, learn to negotiate and exercise leadership, teach games, take turns, learn to resolve conflicts, and are more active before and after school.
We need to make an effort to get kids out in nature, be it a walk around the block, with pauses to examine the world around us, stargazing, or taking trips to national parks. Kids need trips to parks, places where they can muck around free of adult intervention, preferably with a stream nearby and no prohibition against muddy clothes. As adults, we simply have to take the initiative and throw them into the backyard, if we have one, away from the iPads and iPhones and video games. We’re the parents, after all. And while they might whine and bellyache for a few minutes, they’ll quickly get absorbed in sticks, and maybe some mud.
Our kids deserve better. Our kids deserve more than a few minutes standing at the bus stop (if they aren’t dropped off), or some organized and focused runs down the soccer field. They need fresh air. They need free time to explore. They need more outdoor time — not just so they don’t drive us bonkers, but for the sake of their own development. And for the sake of the planet they will one day inherit, and hopefully grow to love.